Court Guts Richie Phillips’ Lawsuit Against MLB, Others

Jan 5, 2007

Former Major League Umpires’ Association (MLUA) counsel Richie Phillips has fallen behind in the count in his legal claim against Major League Baseball, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and other league officials in his claim that they interfered with his relationship as attorney for the MLUA.
 
A Pennsylvania state court recently granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the claims of defamation, invasion of privacy/false light, commercial disparagement and injurious falsehood. The remaining claims of interference with existing and prospective contractual relations and conspiracy were held under advisement pending further oral argument.
 
The dispute began to surface in the summer of 1999, when tension between the MLUA and MLB were developing on issues such as “the definition of the strike zone, performance evaluations of umpires, the use of MLB umpires in a game being played in Cuba and a proposal to move certain of MLB’s operations — including supervision of the umpires — from the Leagues, to the Office of the Commissioner,” according to the court.
 
At the time, the MLUA and MLB had a no-strike provision in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which prevented the union from fully leveraging its power with baseball. The plaintiff, who served as counsel to the union, came up with a different strategy: a “mass resignation plan and submitted written notices of their intent to resign effective September 5, 1999.”
 
The strategy, however, backfired when Phillips failed to convince all of the umpires to go along with the strategy. Only 57 of the total active staff of 68 umpires resigned. Making matters worse for the Union, some of the umpires rescinded their resignations. Baseball met and decided to begin replacing the umpires who had not yet rescinded their resignations.
 
Switching gears, Phillips sought a temporary restraining order from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to prevent the Leagues from accepting the umpires’ resignations. Phillips was unsuccessful. Ultimately, a new union was formed and a new collective bargaining representative was retained, leaving Phillips without a client.
 
Phillips filed suit in state court on July 14, 2000, alleging that the defendants interfered with his relationship with his client, a labor union, and defamed him by making statements which implied that Phillip and his firm was incompetent, dishonest and unethical.
 
Besides Selig, some the of the other defendants named in the suit included Ronald Shapiro of Shapiro & Olander, Robert Manfred (Executive Vice President of Labor and Human Resources for Major League Baseball), Richard “Sandy” Alderson (then-Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations for MLB) and Francis X. Coonelly (general labor counsel for MLB).
The defendants moved for summary judgment, a motion the court was sympathetic to, writing that the plaintiffs “concede that no overtly defamatory statements were made, instead they claim such statements were conveyed through innuendo.
 
“While defendants’ statements — and those made by many others not party to this lawsuit — were likely annoying, embarrassing and insulting to plaintiffs, Phillips in particular — they cannot be considered the basis for a defamation claim under Pennsylvania law.”
 
One of the court’s more interesting evaluations concerned the plaintiffs’ claim for invasion of privacy/false light.
 
“Such a claim is intended to protect a plaintiff’s interest in keeping private matters from public view. To state a cause of action in Pennsylvania, a plaintiff must demonstrate an intentional intrusion on the seclusion of his private concerns which was substantial and highly offensive to a reasonable person. Pro Golf Mfg., Inc., 570 Pa. at 242. McGuire v. Shubert, 722 A.2d 1087, 1998 Pa. Super. LEXIS 4647, (1998).
 
“Here, plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that defendants, or any of them, disclosed matters of ‘private concern.’ The mass resignation strategy and surrounding circumstances were very public events involving an admittedly public figure. The subject matter of the alleged statements received considerable coverage in the national media; there was nothing ‘private’ about it. Moreover, the statements at issue clearly relate to Phillips in his professional capacity, not to matters of ‘private concern.’ As such, the claim for invasion of privacy/false light is not viable here.”
 
Richard G. Phillips And Richard G. Phillips Associates, P.C., Plaintiffs, v. Alan H. “Bud” Selig, et al.; Common Pleas Ct. of Philadelphia Co., Pa., Civ. Trial Div.; No. 1550, 2006 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 386; 10/12/06
 


 

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